Barack Obama is nothing if not an accomplished politician. Despite a background as a community activist, conventional liberal stance in the Illinois state senate, extraordinarily liberal voting record in the US Senate, and celebrated anti-Iraq war position, as president-elect he has raced to the center. In doing so he has reassured Americans worried that he wanted to become redistributionist-in-chief. But he also has generated widespread fear that his foreign policy will turn into a slightly housebroken version of Bush-McCain neoconservatism.
We can’t say we weren’t warned. The foreign policy pronouncements of candidate Obama were notable for their barely muted hawkishness. Thus, the fight against promiscuous military intervention by Washington must continue, only now against the incoming Democratic administration.
President-elect Barack Obama has declared that with his appointments he hopes to "combine experience and fresh thinking." On the national security side, at least, the experience is obvious. But the fresh thinking is entirely absent.
The most disconcerting sign of the future, of course, is the expected appointment of the Amazon warrior, Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state. She voted for the Iraq war and undoubtedly would have backed it even more enthusiastically if it had been proposed by her husband. It took the debacle created by the Bush administration’s incompetent occupation as well as the political dynamics of the Democratic primary to turn her into a not altogether convincing war critic.
During the campaign she also famously imagined herself as visiting Bosnia under fire as First Lady, almost single-handedly bringing peace to a broken land. Whatever her actual role in setting Clinton administration policy, she embraced her husband’s aggressive war against Serbia, which had neither attacked nor threatened to attack the US or any US ally. The result of that policy was to dismember Serbia, leave the Western allies to preside over two episodes of violent ethnic cleansing within Kosovo by America’s nominal allies, the ethnic Albanian majority, and create a precedent for intervention in the name of ethnic liberation, most recently deployed by Russia against Georgia. The geopolitical mess continues, with the majority of states refusing to recognize Kosovo and the statelet barred from UN membership by a Russian veto.
The famous three a.m. phone call ad sold Sen. Clinton’s image as a warrior goddess. If anyone wondered which country she was targeting in her brief TV time on the telephone, it likely was Iran. No US presidential campaign is complete without the obligatory pander to supporters of Israel, and Sen. Clinton cheerfully played the part. Confusing the duty to protect America with that of defending Israel, she announced that if Iran used nuclear weapons to attack Israel which possesses an estimated 200 nuclear weapons, presumably for use in just such a contingency "we will attack Iran" and "we would be able to totally obliterate them."
Nor has she used her time on the Senate Armed Services Committee to challenge any of the foreign policy nostrums promoted by her husband or President George W. Bush. For instance, NATO enlargement has made America less secure and contributed to the Russia-Georgia war, but is holy writ for the foreign policy establishment. Permanent US garrisons in South Korea and Japan are similarly seen as inevitable which sparked Sen. John McCain to muse about keeping an American force in Iraq for a hundred or even thousand years.
The Clinton administration’s Balkans policy (as well as threat to invade Haiti and transformation of the Somalia feeding mission into nation-building) created a precedent for so-called humanitarian intervention. Indeed, she has called for NATO involvement in Sudan’s Darfur region. There is no recent conflict in which she has opposed American participation. To the extent she will formulate as well as implement Obama administration policies, it is likely to be more of the same: multiple wars and threats of wars.
The other members of the President-elect Obama’s national security team are unlikely to balance against the Amazon warrior. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expected to stay on. He has demonstrated both competence and restraint, in a welcome contrast to Donald Rumsfeld. But whether as the odd Republican out Gates will be inclined to weigh in on foreign policy, and whether he will be listened to if he does, is less clear. Nor has he ever suggested significant changes in existing policy: for instance, he is one of the declining number of optimists about finding a military solution in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, retired Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, expected to become National Security Adviser, is no more likely to act as a voice of "change." Gen. Jones, who once commanded NATO, is widely seen as competent and nonpartisan. In the military he was tasked more with implementing than formulating foreign policy, but he has never suggested that he is inclined to rethink today’s policy of promiscuous intervention in every region of the world. He is an advocate of higher military spending, and his most famous proposal was disastrously bad: to place a NATO force, presumably including Americans, in the West Bank. Is there is a dumber region in which to station American soldiers and Marines? Maybe Iraq, but then the Palestinian territories come in at a strong second place.
There will be other appointments, but the assortment of deputy, under, and assistant secretaries at State and Defense will have a more limited role in making policy. Their impact is more likely to be at the margin unlikely to shift the Obama administration’s basic direction. There also will be intelligence officials, but the first indications there are not reassuring. CIA veteran John Brennan was the leading candidate to head the agency before dropping out because of criticism of his public support for such practices as waterboarding and rendition.
Perhaps the best hope is that members of the "team" will spend most of their time battling one another. The rapprochement between President-elect Obama and Sen. Clinton more likely is one of convenience than of conviction. Sen. Biden has spent his entire Senate career on the Foreign Relations Committee, of which he currently is chairman, and as vice president is certain to assert himself. Gen. Jones reportedly has requested Kissinger-like authority, likely to spark turf battles with Secretary of State Clinton, as well as with other cabinet members over such issues as energy. Will Secretary Gates be able to transcend his status as a Bush holdover rather than an Obama loyalist?
Disappointing as the administration seems likely to be, it never looked any other way to those of us who avoided being infected by Obamamania. The argument for Sen. Obama was that whoever he was, he was neither the warrior goddess nor the tempestuous, erratic Republican who sang about the possibility of bombing Iran and who thought President Clinton was a wimp for refusing to order a ground invasion of Serbia. Put bluntly: the alternatives to Sen. Obama were worse.
But Barack Obama never presented himself as a candidate of peace. Rather, he used his prescient opposition to the Iraq war to create an image that attracted most people on the foreign policy Left. However, even his comments on Iraq were carefully calculated: he proposed a 16-month withdrawal and said he would rely on the advice of military commanders, but said ever less on the issue as it faded from public debate.
He joined his opponents in advocating an expensive expansion of the Army and Marine Corps. On Afghanistan and Pakistan he was more hawkish than John McCain, proposing a troop buildup in the former and overt cross-border raids against the latter. Sen. Obama attended the AIPAC convention and pandered as obscenely as his opponents. Although urging a dialogue with Iran, he promised to do "everything in my power" to stop Tehran from developing nuclear weapons and refused to rule out use of military force.
Sen. Obama started out with an evenhanded approach to the Russia-Georgia war, but quickly followed Sen. McCain in backing Georgia’s impulsive, irresponsible Mikheil Saakashvili, who, evidence increasingly indicates, triggered the conflict with an unprovoked invasion of the territory of South Ossetia. Sen. Obama proposed an extensive democracy-promotion program and advocated concerted action in humanitarian crises, such as Darfur. Never once did he question any of Washington’s antiquated Cold War alliances. In fact, after his election he called up South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and promised to "strengthen" an alliance which has lost any role in today’s world.
To shore up his foreign policy credentials Sen. Obama chose his colleague Joe Biden as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. Yet Sen. Biden was an uber-hawk on the Balkans, pushed NATO expansion up to Russia’s borders, backed the Iraq war, flew to Tbilisi to embrace Saakashvili in the latter’s aggressive war, and speaking of Israel declared: "You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist." Not only is Sen. Biden a master political panderer, but it has been decades since he, just like Sen. McCain, has seen a war that he didn’t want America to fight.
In short, the Obama-Biden ticket never presented itself as anything but hyper-interventionist. Some of Sen. Obama’s supporters wanted to believe that he was dissembling on these and other issues for political reasons. And maybe he was, though his appointments so far suggest otherwise. In any case, it is dangerous to assume that one’s candidate is telling the truth when you like what he says, but that he is lying to the world to win votes when you disagree with him. After all, if he is an unregenerate and unashamed liar, why should you believe he ever is telling you the truth?
The argument for Obama really was primarily an argument against McCain: the latter saw war as a first resort against most everyone Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Serbia. The only thing that seemed to occasionally hold Sen. McCain in check was the fear that the American people would not back new foreign adventures, such as engaging in nation-building in Africa. And, in the important case of Iraq, Sen. Obama got the most important decision, whether to go to war, right. Unlike Sen. McCain, Sen. Obama appears to value rational judgment, believe there are some limits to Washington’s power to transform the world, and recognize that war normally is not the best answer to every international problem.
The president-elect’s rush to embrace the liberal interventionist establishment in choosing his foreign policy staff suggests that the next four years will be a lot like the last eight in substance if not tone, and a lot like the previous eight years in both substance and tone. This means that anyone who believes in a foreign policy of peace and nonintervention must continue the battle. The fight against the Bush-McCain neocons is over. The fight against the Obama-Clinton liberal interventionists is about to begin.